Cultural “blind spots,” social influence and the welfare of working donkeys in brick kilns in Northern India

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work across the globe to improve the welfare of working equids. Despite decades of veterinary and other interventions, welfare issues persist with equids working in brick kilns. Engagement with all stakeholders is integral to creating abiding improvements to working equid welfare as interventions based purely on reactive measures fail to provide sustainable solutions. Equid owners, particularly those in low to middle-income countries (LMICs), may have issues such as opportunity, capacity, gender or socio-economic status, overriding their ability to care well for their own equids. These “blind spots” are frequently overlooked when organizations develop intervention programs to improve welfare. This study aims to highlight the lives of the poorest members of Indian society, and will focus on working donkeys specifically as they were the only species of working equids present in the kilns visited. We discuss culture, status, religion, and social influences, including insights into the complexities of cultural “blind spots” which complicate efforts by NGOs to improve working donkey welfare when the influence of different cultural and societal pressures are not recognized or acknowledged. Employing a mixed-methods approach, we used the Equid Assessment Research and Scoping (EARS) tool, a questionnaire based equid welfare assessment tool, to assess the welfare of working donkeys in brick kilns in Northern India. In addition, using livelihoods surveys and semi-structured interviews, we established owner demographics, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion and their personal accounts of their working lives and relationships to their donkeys. During transcript analysis six themes emerged: caste, ethnicity, inherited knowledge; social status, and impacts of ethnic group and caste; social status and gender; migration and shared suffering; shared suffering, compassion; religious belief, species hierarchy. The lives led by these, marginalized communities of low status are driven by poverty, exposing them to exploitation, lack of community cohesion, and community conflicts through migratory, transient employment. This vulnerability influences the care and welfare of their working donkeys, laying bare the inextricable link between human and animal welfare. Cultural and social perspectives, though sometimes overlooked, are crucial to programs to improve welfare, where community engagement and participation are integral to their success.

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